Northern Ireland Assembly and Business Trust
Youth Employment Initiatives
Tuesday 12 February 2013
(Chairperson: Mr Chris Lyttle)
Mr Chris Lyttle (Northern Ireland Assembly): OK, folks, we will make a start. I am delighted to welcome you all to Parliament Buildings. My name is Chris Lyttle. For anyone who does not know me, I am an Assembly Member for East Belfast and chairperson of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Business Trust.
When I took up the post of chairperson, we sat down with officials, who said that our aim for the year was to ensure that any work that we undertook and the events that we organised would try to contribute to the four key economic drivers: enterprise, skills, innovation and infrastructure. The issue that we are dealing with today — youth employment — cuts across all those key areas and is one of the biggest challenges that we face as a Government, an Assembly and a wider community. Part of that challenge will be bringing the Government and the business community together and engaging with young people. That is one of the key aims of the Assembly and Business Trust, and I am delighted that we have representatives from the business community and a fantastic panel with us this morning. We have a tight schedule, and I will not say too much this morning. I will introduce our panel, who will then speak for about five to 10 minutes, after which we will have a panel question and answer session to try to get into some of the detail of the issues.
I am delighted to introduce the Minister for Employment and Learning, Dr Stephen Farry MLA, who I know is personally committed to this issue. He has taken a leading role in driving forward the Executive strategy to promote young people into education, training and employment. He launched a youth employment scheme recently and, only yesterday, launched a review of apprenticeships and youth training schemes. We also have the Chair of the Committee for Employment and Learning, Basil McCrea MLA, whom I normally keep late for his Committee. He has got his own back on me today finally. I owe him one or two. Basil has taken a leading role on the Committee in looking at youth employment and, in particular, leading our Committee inquiry on careers guidance and information. I share his belief that that is a vital area for improvement in ensuring that we get our young people into employment and that they have the right skills relevant to the opportunities that are available in key growth sectors. I am also delighted to introduce Fiona McAteer, researcher for Basil McCrea MLA and a shining example and product of the graduate acceleration programme of the Department for Employment and Learning. We are delighted to have you here this morning, Fiona. Last, but certainly not least, we have Carol Fitzsimons, the chief executive officer (CEO) of Young Enterprise Northern Ireland. I am delighted to say that I have been able to work with Young Enterprise Northern Ireland on a number of occasions and have seen at first hand the fantastic work experience that that organisation gives to our young people. I most recently visited a Young Enterprise programme at Ashfield Girls’ High School in east Belfast and saw at first hand girls dealing with manufacturing of products, fielding interviews from the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ and dealing with finance and accounts. In my opinion, it was giving those girls work experience and employability skills far beyond what any classroom is able to. I am delighted to have this expert panel with us this morning. Without further ado, I introduce the Minister for Employment and Learning.
Dr Farry (The Minister for Employment and Learning): Thank you very much, Chris. First, I welcome the opportunity and the invitation from the Northern Ireland Assembly and Business Trust to have this discussion this morning on a critical issue facing our society and our economy: how we engage with and ensure that we give employment opportunities to young people.
I will set it in a slightly broader context. We have a range of interventions to assist young people. Some of those are very well tried and tested, such as our university offering and our further education offering, and we have made some further investments in those areas. Chris said that, yesterday, we launched a major review of apprenticeships and youth training. I will not talk about that today, but that is part of the wider context. Ultimately, we are trying to ensure that we get — [Interruption.] Was I off brief?
Mr B McCrea: That is a lie. [Laughter.] Every time you tell a lie, it goes off.
Dr Farry: That’s it.
So, recapturing where I was, what we are looking to do here is ensure that we get our young people into either employment or training/education, both of which are of value. Technically speaking, people in education or training are classified as being economically inactive, but it is a benign form of inactivity, because we are investing in their skills, which is of major relevance to the future of the economy. Indeed, the more people engaged in education and training, the better it will be for the economy.
What we want to focus on this morning is the young people who find themselves either in unemployment or even further removed from the labour market and falling into the category of being not in education, employment or training (NEET). We will need a range of interventions to address those people. First of all, I want to emphasise the scale of the challenge facing us in Northern Ireland and then point out why it is important that we address the problem. Over 20,000 young people are unemployed, and youth unemployment is approaching 20%. It is important to stress that that equates not to one in five young people being unemployed but to one in five young people who are actively seeking work or are in work; it does not take into account people who are in education or training. So, when you factor that in, we are talking about closer to one in seven. This is still a major issue for us, and we should not run away from it, but it is important we understand it in its proper context. We have seen a considerable rise in youth unemployment over the past five or six years. In that respect, Northern Ireland is not that much different from most of the rest of the European Union. Nonetheless, we cannot be complacent. This is a major challenge for all of us.
Looking at it from another perspective, in respect of the age bands for the entire profile of unemployed people in Northern Ireland, almost 30% fall within that very narrow range between 18 and 24. So, there is a massive concentration of unemployment among young people. We refer to what is happening in the rest of the European Union, but Northern Ireland probably has a bigger spike of unemployment within that very small age range than a lot of other countries and regions.
We have about 48,000 people who are NEET. That includes, to a certain extent, some people who are unemployed, whom I referred to previously. What the unemployed mainly lack is experience. They are caught in a trap due to the economic circumstances facing Northern Ireland. They should be in work today, but they have been caught in this vicious circle where they cannot really get a job without experience and they cannot get experience without a job, and that perpetuates itself.
The real heart of the problem with those classified as being NEET is those who face much greater barriers to participation in the labour market, be they educational, economic or social problems, such as substance abuse, or mental health issues. So there can be a range of problems, and we need to design policies that will enable them to engage with the labour market and re-engage with education and training.
The first element of what we are trying to do is concentrate on the young people who really need to get on the first rung of the ladder. That is really the essence of the youth employment scheme that we launched last year. There are three elements to that that are worth stressing. The first element is a very short work experience offering of between two and eight weeks, with placements in the labour market. The second element is longer work placements of around six to nine months. The third element is an employer subsidy of up to £5,750, which is a very attractive offering that helps with the wages of a young person. In particular, we find that, in this difficult economic climate, small businesses especially will be asking themselves whether they are prepared to take the risk of employing a young person and taking all the costs that go with that and whether they can afford it. So, it is a difficult call on the margins for small companies. Hopefully, this employer subsidy will go a long way to assisting them in that regard to break through that barrier.
You will also appreciate that we have also launched a NEET strategy for Northern Ireland. This is the first NEET strategy that we have had in this region, and it was approved by the Executive last spring. It follows on from a report that the Committee in the Assembly commissioned a couple of years ago. We have banked all of its recommendations and indeed added a lot of value to it. When I took office, the conventional wisdom was that we were essentially going to have a strategy that tied up all the existing policies and programmes and essentially repackaged them in a different way. We have taken a major step forward in the sense that we have now invested and created a new budget for NEETs and a range of programmes to engage with young people who are NEET. Perhaps the one that is most visible today is the collaboration and innovation fund. Just before Christmas, we announced about £9 million of investment in the community and voluntary sector for a range of projects that should engage with about 5,000 young people over the next two years and, hopefully, begin to bring them closer to the labour market so that they can either consider education or training or, indeed, the youth employment scheme.
The overall funding package for those two initiatives — the youth employment scheme and NEETs — is about £40 million over a three-year period. The scale of that investment is greater on a pro rata basis than in any other part of the UK, so we are putting a lot of investment into these schemes. In October, we also added some new strands based on the Executive’s economy and jobs initiative. One of those is a scheme called First Start, which is a very short, sharp intervention where we offer six-month placements with a £1,000 wage subsidy. Again, that should make a real difference in giving people opportunities.
Ultimately, the bottom line around all of this is that we cannot afford to see a lost generation emerging in Northern Ireland. We have to invest in our people, and we have to capture all of our productive talents if we are to make this economy a success. If people are educated and trained — indeed, we have invested public money in their education and training — but do not then have the opportunities to deploy their skills, those skills will go rusty within about 18 months, and we will have lost that resource to the economy. Therefore, there is a real strong requirement for us to get in there and sort this problem out.
Ultimately, my appeal to employers is that they engage with the scheme. Delivery will be critical over the next couple of years. This can only really work if employers come forward and offer work placement opportunities and take advantage of the subsidies available for employing young people. If this is a marginal call, I stress to businesses that, if they take a risk, they will have the support of government and, in taking that risk, they may find that that young person will add to the bottom line of their business and make the business, in turn, more profitable. In turn, they will reach the conclusion that they can afford to employ this person and that, moreover, it is their interests to do so. Hopefully, if the scheme works, that is the type of conclusion that businesses will reach over the coming months.
Thank you very much for the opportunity, and I look forward to answering your questions.
Mr Lyttle: Thank you, Minister. I look forward to hearing more about how the community and voluntary sector and employers can engage with the good work that you are doing. Next up we have the Chair of the Employment and Learning Committee, Basil McCrea. He has been briefed to discuss the graduate acceleration programme (GAP), but I imagine that we will hear about lots more.
Mr Basil McCrea (Northern Ireland Assembly): That is great, Chris. You have got me nicely set up now.
There are a number of things that I want to say over and above GAP, mainly because the Minister has raised some of the issues. It is quite an interesting perspective for the Minister and I to be talking about the same thing, because we come at it from slightly different perspectives. If there is a big theme that we unite on, it is that we need employers to get involved. We need you to take young people on board. Part of the problem is that there are all sorts of reasons why you would not do it. When we were down at the college in Bangor, we talked about getting people placed. Employers were saying, “Yes, we’ll take students on, but please send us good ones”. In other words, they could not afford the time to manage people who are not “good ones”, whatever “good” or “bad” might be. So, there is an issue about that.
There is also a concern that people are pretty busy doing their own business. The time that they have to invest in young people can be quite challenging, particularly if they are a smaller business. Some things that I talk to students about shock people a wee bit, but I will say it now to get you to understand it. I talk to a lot of young people who say, “I have invested so much time in getting this degree or qualification. I have spent a lot of money on this; I have got my fees and all the assistance. You have failed because you have not got me a job”. I say to them, “It is not my job to get you a job; it is your job to get you a job”. They have to have some skills or some sort of experience or something that people will pay them for. When you come out of university or school, frankly — [Interruption.] That is John McCallister; should I take it? [Laughter.] Chris says that I have to turn the phone off. That is too bad. I will do just that, because this is an important subject.
It is not my job to get people a job. It is not even your job to get people a job. However, it is, perhaps, my job to create the environment in which they can get a job by equipping them with the necessary skills or experience to do something. When they are first out from school, college or whatever, they have little to offer apart from the smile on their face and a bit of enthusiasm. We were all there at one stage. We have to find a way of moving beyond complaining about things. I hear employers saying, “I can’t get the staff I want. If I could find the right person, I would take them on. There is no problem with that”. We have to try to bridge that gap.
I want to make one last point before I talk a little bit about my experience of the GAP programme. With all due respect to my friend and colleague — it is all right, Sandra, it is only a figure of speech; it is not an announcement or anything like that — it is all very complicated. There are schemes here and there and various initiatives. I never really knew what was or was not. Even today, when you say that there is £1,000 for something, it all seems quite complicated. When I want to do something with somebody, the scheme does not seem to work for whatever I have. Do you know what I mean? There is every scheme in the world out there except the one that I want. Perhaps we have to do something to refocus and try to work with people to get a communication strategy going. As Chris mentioned, it is a really good thing that the Minister and his Department are looking at the apprenticeship issue in totality. We need a holistic approach to a range of things.
I come specifically to the GAP students. I have to be a bit careful because my GAP person is following me. You do not know what it is like in life: every now and again, you make a mistake, are you are stuck with it. Fiona will tell you what I am like as a boss. I made a little joke there, but the beauty of the GAP scheme is that you are not really stuck with it. You get a chance to see what the person is like by working with them for six months. I am sure that Fiona will tell you that, for the first six months, she had to work for nothing. It is pretty tough, but there is a huge amount of experience to be gained. Then, for the next six months, we had to start paying her money, not a lot but some money. After that, we had to pay her all the money she wanted. Why she thought she was worth the minimum wage, I do not know, but anyway. She was really good. I am using a bit of humour, but the scheme lets you see who has value. She does a magnificent job. She works for me and with me and occasionally tells me what to do. It is a difficult and stressful environment to work in. What she wanted was an opportunity to show what she could do, which is what all young people want. She does great things and is really impressive. That is what I want to say to you about this GAP programme: it is easy to enter and take someone on. Just give it a go. If it does not work, people understand that it is only a chance to get a bit of experience, but, in my experience, those who come forward make a difference.
Fiona might mention this, and, if she does not, I suggest that she does: one of the reasons why she got employed by me was that she made it happen. She was in an office that was supposed to give her advice on the GAP scheme, and the adviser that she was talking to had never heard about it. She did the classic and said, “Well, look behind you. There is a poster. I want on that, what do I have to do to get on it?” . She made it happen, which shows her character. So, there are lots and lots of really capable, energetic and enthusiastic young people out there who, given half a chance, will impress you, and you will find a way to make them part of your business.
I want to conclude by picking up on a few things in addition to the GAP scheme, which Fiona will talk about. I have an office in this Building that is so busy it is almost like a refugee camp. It is so packed that Karen, my PA, reorganised it a couple of months ago to the extent that I ended up with no desk or chair. There are too many other people in there doing work, and apparently I am not around enough to make any difference. So, we have got a number of people who were not on the scheme. We have Jamie, who comes in and does some really good things around working with the community. I now have to employ him. He was a student at Belfast Met, and he followed me around for two or three days trying to get an interview. I eventually said, “All right, you can have an interview, and you might as well work with me, because you stuck around for a while”. The point that I want to make is that I had to take him on with no support. Retrospectively, I cannot go and look for support. You do not want to have a situation where I do not want to recruit somebody because there may be a scheme coming along. I know there is an issue about dead weight, but the whole idea is keeping people in the right job.
There is an issue with NEETs, but the only thing that government does really well is put money towards budgets. It is you — the employers — who actually do something and take people on. All the money in the world will not fix this: you will have to decide if you want to invest.
I will also mention Europe. The Minister talked about that and the big spike here. The Committee was over in Brussels to have a look at Employment Week. One of the things that we are seeing happening in Europe is a structural change, where it is now accepted that big companies will no longer be able to provide all of the employment that our young people need. That is a structural change, so you are going to get self-employment as an option, because there is nothing else. We need to think about how we deal with that.
I am going to read out a Facebook communication that I got last night. It is from Jordan Hanna. You will not know who Jordan Hanna is, and neither do I. The message is not quite about the GAP programme, but it is about the same thing. It says:
“Hi Basil. I remember you posted a while back about youth unemployment in Lisburn and some measures that you think should be taken towards fixing the problem. I am 18 and I am currently working part-time in a clothes shop on minimum wage because I simply cannot find anything else. Every job I apply for there are hundreds who apply, so someone with not much experience is bound to fall down the pecking order. I am on the Lisburn City Council website at the moment and there are quite a few jobs such as dog warden, who are wanting an essential 12 months’ previous experience. From the job description it does not seem that the role would be that challenging that people with only training and no experience would be unable to do it, but they are asking for 12 months’ experience. Maybe revising the entry requirements for many of the council jobs would help this problem.”
What young people want is a chance to do something so that they can say that they have got a year’s experience. When we were down in Enniskillen, Fermanagh District Council announced that it had created 10 jobs specifically to give people experience. The jobs were not long-term jobs but were created to get people in.
I realise that this has been a fairly lengthy address and there are other, more interesting speakers who have come along to talk to us. This is about employers who really want to make things happen. Take on some young people and take advantage of the schemes that are being offered. I assure you that you will not be disappointed by your investment. I certainly was not. Thank you very much.
Mr Lyttle: Thank you, Basil. You have certainly hit on the key challenge of making sure that we make it easy for our employers to grant our young people employment opportunities and make the schemes understandable and well communicated across the community, because they exist there.
Up next we have Fiona McAteer, who has been involved in an Employment and Learning work experience programme with Basil. We are delighted to have her with us this morning.
Ms Fiona McAteer (Researcher for Basil McCrea MLA): I agree with some of Basil’s points but not all of them, obviously. [Laughter.] I wrote all the nice things that he said about me.
When I started on the GAP scheme, which someone had told me about, I had a degree and a masters and had not been able to find anything. I had applied for hundreds of jobs but had not had so much as an automatic e-mail back from any of them. That is another thing that businesses have to address because there are so many people applying for jobs and their confidence is so low. They need to be given some sort of hope.
When I saw the GAP scheme I thought, “Why not go for it?”. I have volunteered as well, but you do not get paid. Volunteering is worthwhile, but everyone needs to make money. As Basil said, I went to the Lisburn jobs and benefits office and started talking about the GAP scheme. The person was looking at me with a blank stare. I was like, “There’s a poster right behind you. What is this all about?”. They were unable to tell me anything about the scheme. I had to tell them about it, even though that was their job as front-line staff. The Department and the Minister need to address that. There are young people going into the jobs and benefit offices who need help and encouragement. For me, personally, it was not there, and loads of people have told me exactly the same thing about their local jobs and benefits office.
I saw a placement and thought that it would be good because I have a politics degree and it was a kind of history thing. I was sent to Basil’s Lagan Valley constituency office for an informal chat but he grilled me for two hours, after which he decided that he would take me on. I thought, “I’m going to give this everything I’ve got”. I was in a part-time job in Sainsbury’s, but I hated every second of it. I thought, “Why did I do a degree and a master’s to be sitting in Sainsbury’s not using any of my skills?”. As the Minister said, if you do not use your skills, you forget about them. You also do not have the confidence to know that you have those skills. You need someone there to tell you that you can do it.
For the first six months, you basically work for free. You get money on the dole and a £15 government training allowance. That is not a lot, given that you are working alongside people who are getting paid properly for doing exactly the same job, but it is amazing experience. I would definitely say this to any businesses out there: tailor a placement that, you think, will help your business to grow, and you will find a student who wants to do that job. There are so many people out there looking for placements and for someone to give them that chance and the confidence to do it. After six months, if they decide to keep you on — Basil had no choice; he had to keep me on — your wage is subsidised for another six months. So, it is a year in total, and that year’s experience is vital. That could keep someone going for another 20 years. I think of the things that I have learnt in this job; it is kind of crazy sometimes. The reason we rearranged the office is that we decided that Basil did not do enough work. [Laughter.] We do it all for him.
Basil understood from the beginning that it is a business. He took on a proper mentoring role and realised that I was not just a volunteer and was not coming in to waste his time or mine. He took the time to help me rebuild all my confidence and skills. It has obviously worked out well. I am very happy, and I am so glad every day when I wake up that I have this job to go to. The rest of the team that I work with have been amazing, and they have all helped me in this role as well. So, GAP is definitely well worth it.
There are challenges. You have to go through Business in the Community, People 1st and all those organisations. They are small organisations as well, and they have so many people coming to them. Again, it is the front-line staff in the jobs and benefits offices. I had a horrific experience at Gist, but I wanted this so much that I just kept going and I was able to find something. Businesses have to take on that mentoring role as well. If they spend time with a GAP student, they will hopefully get that back through revenue and business growth and see someone they can be really happy with and proud of and who may be with their business, whatever that is, for the next 10 years.
Mr Lyttle: Thank you, Fiona. I think that the Minister, the Chair and, indeed, the Assembly recognise that, in order to address youth unemployment, we have to engage with young people. We are delighted to hear your testimony this morning. You laid down a clear challenge to government to make sure that, as Basil said, a framework of advice and direction to programmes is in place to help our young people gain those opportunities. I know Basil said that it is not our job to create jobs, but he also acknowledges — I think that we can clearly see this from Fiona’s contribution today — that, although there is a challenge, there are opportunities for businesses if they are able to tailor those work experience and placement opportunities with the help of government, and great results can be achieved.
On the issue of youth engagement, we also have Carol Fitzsimons from Young Enterprise Northern Ireland with us today. Carol will tell us more about exactly what opportunities young people are looking for.
Ms Carol Fitzsimons (Young Enterprise Northern Ireland): Thank you, Chris. I approach this speaking on behalf of young people while recognising that I am no longer a young person, which is quite a depressing realisation for me.
Young Enterprise sees 100,000 students in Northern Ireland every year. That is one in three of the school population. So, I speak from the point of view of what we hear from those young people and what we see of them. We have a passionate, enthusiastic generation, but there is a risk that they will not get involved or get the opportunities to drive that passion and energy into the economy.
When we surveyed them recently, one in three young people — these were 15- and 16-year-olds — felt already that, if they wanted to get the opportunities to get the job they wanted, they would have to go outside Northern Ireland. They had already made their mind up about that and had already started to look elsewhere. That is quite depressing. We would like to believe that, if young people want to stay in Northern Ireland, that is still an available choice for them. I am a big believer in international travel and widening your horizons, maybe working abroad and then choosing to bring back those skills, but I also believe that young people should have the choice to stay if they wish to.
It is a big and broad question, and we can address the question of what young people want by looking at all the schemes and frameworks. It can also be very simply distilled and simplified. There are a lot of young people in the room this morning, some interns and Peter from Generation and Innovation at the Science Park. As I came in, I asked them what I should speak about. I had written something down beforehand as well, not just as I came into the room, but I thought that I should reinforce and check with them. The response was one word: jobs. It is about meaningful jobs that provide them with the opportunity to have a career and skills and jobs that challenge them.
We also see passion and energy in our work, which engages young people in entrepreneurship and business start-up. There is a genuine interest from many young people in setting up their own business or looking at self-employment. With the newer industries that are coming on board, we see that the traditional employment model of Monday to Friday 9.00 am to 5.00 pm is not necessarily the only route. Young people may want portfolio careers and freelance working, and they want the opportunity to maybe have several careers on the go at the same time. From an employer point of view, we could look at whether every job requires 35 hours a week Monday to Friday from 9.00 am to 5.00 pm or whether there are variations of that that we could look at. We could consider home working and whether jobs can be done remotely or in different ways. For employers too, it is about challenging the way that we work.
The tone can be that we are doing young people a favour in helping them to get skills so that, hopefully, they will get a job and that is nice because they need to be given an opportunity . That is not our view in Young Enterprise. Our view is that we have set out a strategic plan and a vision for Northern Ireland in our Programme for Government and have outlined what we want Northern Ireland to look like by 2030. Any good business will have a strategic plan and will then convert that into an operational delivery plan. I see helping our young people, giving them the skills and getting them into employment as part of our operational delivery plan for getting to 2030 and the vision of what we want Northern Ireland to be. We also need to take a step back and say that we do not just want to improve youth unemployment because it is not nice for them and is not helpful; if we believe that Northern Ireland needs to look a certain way by 2030, we have to understand that skills need to be developed and experience needs to be gained and look at which people we expect to be the leaders and the employees in 2030. It is not those of us in this room. It is the young people. It is about the sustainability of what we do for Northern Ireland.
My background is learning and development, and the learning and development plan for Northern Ireland is looking right now at the young people coming through and giving them the skills. Through our work, we hope that we help to bring employability skills and entrepreneurship and an interest in that to the young people. However, that is only one part, and there are many organisations at work.
Training and education is a huge piece, and it is vital that we continue to give young people those opportunities. Like Basil, I used all our social media networks — we are on Twitter and Facebook — to ask young people what they wanted. It is not allowed to be my view. They came back with some practical suggestions, and that reinforces that, as Chris said, it is important that we engage young people in the process. It is not as simple as saying, “We want a job”; they have practical suggestions to offer if we engage with them and talk to them. So, the responses I got — some are addressed by some of our schemes — talked about making sure that they had the opportunity to get 21st-century transferable employability skills that they could take from one role to another. They also talked about the recognition of non-formal education. Fiona, you sort of implied that with regard to taking on volunteering roles. If we want a skills- and knowledge-based economy, we have to start to value skills as well as qualifications. That is a huge challenge for Northern Ireland society, which tends to measure success on the basis of the qualification route.
It is also a question of how to get a job if you do not have experience. They all said that they needed opportunities to get experience or employers who were willing to take a chance on young people who did not have experience. From my background in the private sector, I suggest that maybe we need not to look at it as necessarily a lack of experience. Young people have huge competencies in other areas. In most of the appraisal schemes and competency frameworks that you use in the workplace, you will look for enthusiasm, communication skills, team work, problem solving and creativity. Many young people are already skilled and experienced in those. They maybe do not have training in a specific element.
I used to work for Concentrix, which was previously gem. It was a start-up in Northern Ireland and is now a huge organisation. It was a case of “Recruit on attitude and train the skills”. It is not always the case, but you need diversity in your workforce and to bring in that dynamic. As employers, we need to recognise that we have to have a diverse workforce. Young people are part of that, and it is not just that we are doing them a favour by bringing them in.
The issue of apprenticeships and internships very much came up with people wanting to get the opportunity. I meet a huge number of talented young people — some of them are in this room — doing apprenticeships and internships, and they still do not know what they will do to get a job next. That is disappointing because they have then done the skills route, the degree and the internship and they are still stuck. We need to address that.
My advice is to talk to young people and do not think of it as doing youth a favour by getting them into your organisation. Consider it from the point of view of your company and the sustainability and succession planning that goes on. You need to have new blood in your organisation that you can grow and develop.
Mr Lyttle: Thank you, Carol. That certainly focused the mind on young people needing 21st-century skills for not just their individual development but for our wider economic growth and the challenge that we have set ourselves to build a knowledge-based economy in Northern Ireland. I am keen to take time for questions and answers and to see how we progress these aims and goals.
Ms Kate Houston (Apple Recruitment): I listened to everything that was said, and it was all very good and well informed. However, we have a big problem in that we have loads of young boys and girls coming in to see us on a daily basis. We are one of the local small agencies — I have been going for 35 years — and we have been trying to help people as much as we can. As a small business, however, we are inundated, so please understand that, because do try to go forward and help them.
One of the main problems that we find within business groups in Northern Ireland is not that they do not want to take people on but that we do not have prospects any more. I am 60, and there are people of my era sitting still in a job and holding on to the job because their kids are coming home because they cannot get a job. Therefore, they feel that they have to earn the money to keep the family together. That then makes it difficult for younger people to get those chances.We have other stepping stones within the business community as well. Jobs are held open for people for one year and two years. You can take kids in and train them, but that person owns that job, and, at the end of two years or a year, you probably have to let them go because the other person comes back to their job. It is a difficult situation. It is giving kids hope and then dashing it, and it is not fair on the children, the young ones.
I have letters here from businesses that knew that I was coming here. They have needs for young people who are graduates in the IT sector. They cannot get the young people through the universities. There is an indigenous small company in north Belfast that now employs about, I think, 60 people. It has ended up having to set up a programme with a college of further education outside the Belfast area so that it can train the people in the programming and analyst work that it needs. The college of further education is able to supply it, but the University of Ulster cannot, which is hard for me to comprehend. It has another problem, in that it is completing with wholesale larger companies that are coming into Northern Ireland. We are not helping to promote our small indigenous companies. The bigger companies get the limelight, and they get the employees because they can afford to pay them, because they are probably getting subsidised help to come here in the first place, which makes it awfully difficult for smaller, localised companies.
I can see the difficulties with the kids. They need the help — we understand that — but there are so many stumbling blocks. It is not fair on the youngsters. We know that, but we are in a catch-22 situation. I hate to be the first person to speak and maybe not sound the happiest. There are ways around it. Colleges of further education are a big one, because they teach a skills base.
Mr Lyttle: That is a valuable contribution. I know that the Minister is doing some work on training and skills in the ICT sector. Minister, do you want to respond to that question and contribution?
Dr Farry: A range of issues have been raised there. We have the spectre looming of what happens in Italy at present, where there is a real difficulty with youth unemployment and a major difference in opportunities on a generational level. We have not yet seen a major influx to the labour market in terms of that phenomenon just yet, but, obviously, I acknowledge that it is a danger. As part of that situation we have the removal of the automatic retirement age as well, so there are opportunities for people to work longer, and as a society we encourage people to do that so that we can afford pensions. There are a lot of different pressures there that may at times work against each other.
In the ICT sector, this is a source of frustration on a number of levels. First of all, there are job opportunities out there in the economy, but we are not able to place the right people in the right job, so there is a skills mismatch there. That is a fundamental frustration for all of us, leaving aside the wider issues of youth unemployment. The ICT sector is an area where we are putting in a lot of work. There are skill shortages in most countries in ICT, so there is an issue there generally with the skills pipeline. We have to make sure that we do not cap our potential in Northern Ireland through the lack of skills.
There is currently an ICT action plan in place, which we launched last June. That is a living, breathing, evolving document that we created with universities, colleges and employers, among others. First of all, in universities there is an expansion of undergraduate and postgraduate places, but we accept that the academic route is not always the right pathway into ICT. ICT is a very broad sector, with some very pure, high-level programming but also things like software testing and more technical skills in terms of how applications are run and all the different set-up functions. So there is a broad range of jobs in ICT.
The particular situation that you outlined is ripe for the apprenticeship model. At present, apprenticeships are run to levels 2 and 3 only. At South West College in Fermanagh, ironically enough, we have just launched a level 4 ICT pilot, which got off the ground last November. I am keen to see us expanding into a wider range of higher-level apprentices, potentially up to levels 4, 5 and 6. Therefore, if someone is recruited, they can learn on the job and be trained in the specific needs of that company while receiving an accredited qualification and going to the college for day release.
Mr Lyttle: Thank you for that response, Minister. I realise that there may be frustration in some businesses that the relevant training might not be there just yet, but work is going on at government level to address those gaps. At the risk of putting the Minister on the spot, perhaps you might want to forward some of that correspondence to the Minister so that he can be directly aware of some of the specifics around those issues.
Does any other member of the panel want to come in on that point, or will we take a few more questions?
Ms Fitzsimons: I have a private sector background. I came from an organisation that could not find skills, as you well know within Apple. From a learning and development viewpoint, we also need to realise that people will not come in with all skills. It is a very fast-moving economy. It is not just young people; adults will not come in fully formed with all the skills that we need for their work. I commend what you talked about, Minister, with regard to professional apprenticeships, and we see that route happening a lot, particularly in Germany. We need to be much smarter about very quickly identifying the skills gaps and putting in initiatives to help employers work with the colleges to bring those skills in on an apprenticeship basis. Realistically, programming skills and other skills that we do not even know about will be needed in the next five years. Rather than seeking to go through academic rigour to get those put into the curriculum, it would be better to build the aptitudes and the transferable skills that will then be able to be taken into the workforce and adjusted.
Mr Lyttle: Can we take two more questions, and then we will have a response from the panel?
Ms Gillian Winters (SEMTA): I welcome the initiatives and appreciate the reviews, especially the apprenticeship review that the Minister is implementing. It is certainly very positive for priority sectors such as engineering and manufacturing. Employer engagement was mentioned, and it is absolutely critical. From an employer’s perspective, I would be interested to hear how the Minister, with key stakeholders, plans to communicate and simplify the funding opportunities available to employers.
Mr Lyttle: I will take one more question, and then we will get the panel to respond.
Mr Peter Edgar (NISP CONNECT): This is an awesome forum; it is really cool. I am really passionate about youth unemployment, having just come through a lot of the initiatives. I did Young Enterprise at Dromore High School and at Friends’ School, Lisburn. I loved it so much that I did it twice when I transferred over. The basics that you learn there are incredible, and now I have the opportunity to work with some of the young kids coming through in the Generation Innovation scheme. When I went to university, I did the Study USA programme, which is supported by DEL. I went off and did a Study Abroad scheme in the US for nine months. Following that, I did the US-NI mentorship programme and worked for Almac, a local pharmaceutical company, in Philadelphia.
The key thing that I learned through all of that is the importance of mentorship. The business community can benefit really simply by just being available in a networking sense or in having an advisory role for young people. It would be somewhere where they could go to get that information and awareness of programmes and schemes that help them to do that.
How do we encourage young people to be entrepreneurs, particularly in the technology sectors — high-tech, biotech, clean tech — where the global markets are advancing? How do we encourage kids to do that and elevate the status of the entrepreneurs as opposed to the traditional professions here in Northern Ireland?
Mr Lyttle: OK, panel, employer engagement was first, and then you can deal with the second question. Minister, will you come in first on employer engagement? We will then try to give the rest of the panel an opportunity.
Dr Farry: First, we are working on a pilot level 4 apprenticeship in engineering, and hopefully that is only the tip of the iceberg in what we can do for the engineering sector. We will take back the feedback about the simplification of the offering across a number of fronts. It is a core part of the terms of reference for the apprenticeship review, so we appreciate that that has to happen. On that point, apprenticeships are only created by employers. We can facilitate them, but apprenticeships are jobs where you learn at the same time. We need those opportunities to be created. The more we can ease employers into doing that, the better it is for everyone, so there is a clear message there. Also, we will take back the feedback around the jobs and benefits offices and the information at the front line. We have created some jobs internally because we have recruited more staff in the public sector to roll out some of these youth employment schemes. We have tried to take the more experienced staff and prioritise them to dealing with the young people exclusively and then backfill their jobs with new recruits.
I absolutely agree with your point on enterprise and entrepreneurship. We have a culture in Northern Ireland that is anti-enterprise. I will maybe tee Basil up in a minute. We are talking about a careers review next year. The Committee is doing a careers inquiry at present. We tend to almost suppress enthusiasm for enterprise and say, “You do not want to do that. It sounds awfully risky”, and we suggest to them that they consider going into one of the professions or a nice, safe, public sector job. There is a big cultural issue first of all.
We then have to think about the different levels at which people will be setting up their jobs. We have spin-out companies coming out of our universities. We are probably doing better in Northern Ireland at that than other parts of the UK are, but there is a lot more that we can do. There are other people with business ideas who we need to support through the employment schemes that we have. We will take that feedback away.
Ms McAteer: It is a lot about changing people’s attitudes towards skills and apprenticeships. With the GAP, I got to do an NVQ in management. In school, you are taught to go to university. I went to Queen’s and did a very theory-based course, so I had to change my attitude to what skills are needed and learn that there is nothing wrong with doing apprenticeships and NVQs. Sometimes there is a bit of attitude around that.
Mr B McCrea: Can I speak now?
Mr Lyttle: Basil, that is how you do concise, by the way.
Mr B McCrea: Do the words “pot”, “kettle” and “black” put into a sentence have any meaning for you, Chris?
I have four A Levels: maths, chemistry, physics and biology. I have a degree in chemical engineering and a master’s in informatics, not ICT, which is easier. I am a C++ programmer, if anyone is interested, so, when things have run their course for me, that is probably where I am going. There seem to be plenty of opportunities there.
Talking in a friendly but frank way, how do you get young people to look at programming? We used to have a thing called Nortel, and then it went bust, so everybody said that that was no good because of the dot-com boom and bust. Here I am defending the Department. Employers said that they wanted some sort of scheme to train software engineers, and the industry recruited only 50% of the people that we trained. The Public Accounts Committee would be quite likely to ask why we were spending so much money if there is no demand. This is where we need a genuine relationship between business, the Department and, possibly, the unions about long-term labour planning. IT is one of the areas in which there are gaps; according to the CBI, there are 10,000 jobs in that sector. There are also about 10,000 jobs in renewables. We have an entire electricity grid that needs rebuilt. We need to find ways of getting the solar panels working. There are all sorts of issues. It is about trying to explain where opportunities might lie in the future. People need to plan for the future.
I will conclude on the issue of how to get people to be entrepreneurs. I have been a serial entrepreneur: I have raised money twice and lost it three times. That is why I am in politics, but there you go. You raise money, and you go off and do it. It is difficult when you are in your 20s to have the necessary skills to make it work. Sometimes, you have to try it and fail. We need to change our attitude so that we get more into the “fail fast” mode, which is this: see if it works, and, if it is not going to work, don’t beat your head against a brick wall but get out and do something different and you will get something eventually. Were I to be an entrepreneur now, I would be much more successful than I was when I tried to be an entrepreneur when I was 20. I now have a black book full of contacts. I have now learnt a bit. I know what to do and how to say it. There is a link. We need to marry the enthusiasm of the young people with the experience of the business leaders in this room. There needs to be mentoring so that you do not just put them in a corner and tell them to make the tea; it is about really investing in them. It is personally satisfying and good for the pension. That is why I recommend active mentoring being led by business leaders who really care about individuals. That type of individual programme really makes the difference.
Ms Fitzsimons: There are a lot of aspects to cover, so I will try to keep this brief. If I go back to the operational plan analogy for 2030, we need to carry out a training needs analysis of what our economy needs, what is going to come down the line and what we need to see in place. Part of that is having a learning and development plan. The DEL programmes should be part of that plan. That may take the form of apprenticeships. It may take the form of what is done in FE or HE, but it also needs to go back into the schools. We, in Young Enterprise, find that the interest in entrepreneurship is always post-16. Everybody who supports our programmes says that they are great and they are very interested in funding, particularly post-16. We have primary programmes, which is where the learning starts. That is where the culture is set and where we embed the attitudes. We have launched a P7 version of Company this year, where kids in P7 set up their own company. They will talk about doing their elevator pitch and working out their profit and loss. That is where we embed those skills, and yet we struggle to convey to people that that is what is important.
We need to educate at both ends of the scale. We need to educate the young people about entrepreneurship, and we need to educate adults about the wider economy. You are absolutely accurate. We have all seen the attitude towards entrepreneurship in the United States. I was fortunate enough to go on a study trip to the United States with this very Basil on youth entrepreneurship. We were surprised with what we came back with, because we are on a par with their infrastructure, framework and all that they do. We have the same level of best practice. We do not have the support and the encouragement that goes behind that. The attitude in the United States is that you fail fast and you move on to your next business. Here, you set a up a business, and everybody says, “Is that not a little bit risky? Maybe you should get a job”. If the business fails, they say, “Well, at least you tried. Never mind”. The attitude in the United States is to start again.
Mr Lyttle: Carol, who says those things? Where is the cultural change needed most?
Ms Fitzsimons: In Northern Ireland? Among adults and parents. Just as there has been the initiative to get parents involved with homework, in the media and in all the messaging that we send out across Northern Ireland, we need to say, “This is the vision, this is what it looks like, and, if you want your young people to have a job in the future, you should do that”. I genuinely believe that parents come from a good place. They want the best for their children. We still have it ingrained in us that the best for your child is to get a degree and that will set them up. That message has not changed, and what we need to say is, “If you want the best for your children, look to these sectors. Look at apprenticeships, which may be a better route in. Look at what serves you best and what will get the best results”.
You have spoken really well today, Fiona. I think that that is a really good role model. We need more of those role models coming out to show that the apprenticeships and schemes are not a second choice. Times have changed, and we really need to have an expectation that you are going to have a portfolio career. You are going to come out and you will have to move through several programmes or schemes or different types of job to get where you want to be. There is no straight route in any more.
Mr Lyttle: Do you think that the careers guidance that we offer young people in the education system at the moment delivers the message that we need to deliver?
Ms Fitzsimons: I was with the Committee last week. I think that careers guidance and teachers have a hugely difficult job to deliver that information in a constantly changing landscape. I would prefer to see our young people being skilled in doing what Fiona did: go out and assess the landscape for themselves and look at how they can transfer their skills into the next role. Advising somebody that “This is the next step, and then this is the next 20 years for you” is an impossible task, and it cannot be done in that way.
Mr Lyttle: We are almost out of time, folks. Has anyone one last burning question to ask?
Ms Christine Watson (Watson & Co. Chartered Marketing): My contribution is quite a positive one and takes on some of the questions that have been asked before. I am delighted to hear of the mentoring that is supported by the science park in front of me. We are working with the Chartered Institute of Marketing on a pilot with Stephen’s Department, and we are creating jobs. I work with an awful lot of tiny companies — microcompanies — and I do that as a result of support from the European Union. To date, every company that I have worked with needs someone to do their marketing for them. The business owner or manager does everything, and they simply need somebody to take on that task. I firmly believe that, as soon as they take the risk and employ that new person for marketing, they will add value. A marketer should bring in more money than they cost, hence they should go through the process and justify their own salary at the end of it — just as Fiona did with Basil.
I would ask for some sort of acknowledgement that, in situations like that, the business owner does not necessarily have the mentoring support needed, and that is something that, I feel, is lacking in the current scheme. It is important to have an actual marketing mentor, because, clearly, marketing is not the expertise of everyone. Apart from that, I would also call for the underemployed to be taken into account. We have so many schemes that support people who are on the dole — dare I say the word? — but what about the youngsters? You had a part-time job in Sainsbury’s: if that was for over 16 hours, you would not be eligible.
Ms McAteer: That was a problem. When I went to the jobs and benefits office, they told me that I had to do 16 hours. So, I went to my manager and cut my shifts down to 16 hours. Then I went back and they were like, “No, it has to be 15 hours and 59 minutes”. I had to go back to my manager and ask [Inaudible.]
Ms Watson: That is absolutely appalling. As an employer, I will be taking on my first permanent member of staff — to date, I have been outsourcing work — through the youth employment scheme. I would like to have the choice to take on the hungry graduates who are out there working 16 or 20 hours per week. In fact, last year I took on a young lady who was working 20 hours per week part time in New Look. She has an awful lot of value to add to the economy. I know that she is not taking down dole money and is probably paying national insurance, so she is not high on the priority list, but, potentially, she can add more value to my business than is being taken into account at the minute. I would like there to be some recognition that the people who are working 16 or more hours a week in part-time retail or bar jobs also have skills that will be redundant within 18 months if they are not used. Those people need to be taken into account.
Mr Lyttle: Minister, do you want to respond to that question and, maybe, start to round things up?
Dr Farry: OK. Christine has outlined a number of issues there, and we will certainly take them on board. It is always important to stress that, from Christine’s perspective, marketing is a different skill from sales, and people often run the two together.
There may well be a number of creative solutions that we can talk about, particularly for the very small microbusinesses, including whether we can try pooling arrangements whereby those skills can be shared through mentoring rather than necessarily going down the one-to-one route. We take back the feedback about the bureaucracy around the schemes. This is an ongoing issue with large organisations, and we are conscious of that.
Mr B McCrea: In response to Christine, I want to re-emphasise that the reason I read out the Facebook message from the young lady was to say that she has a part-time job in a retail outlet and that shows her commitment to go out and get a job. I do not know whether we have any schemes to address the underemployed.
Dr Farry: We are aware of the various thresholds at which people kick in. At this stage, the priority is to get people in the door and into meaningful activity. Underemployment is an issue that follows from that. The biggest issue at the coalface is getting people into meaningful activity rather than have them sitting at home doing nothing and wasting away their skills through lack of opportunities.
Mr B McCrea: I mentioned my staff. Fiona has explained how she had to downsize her work to get on the scheme. Jamie, who, I think, wandered in at the back, is a good guy. I had to pay him regardless of him being on a scheme. I do not want to have to fire him so that I can put him on a scheme and then take him. Rachel is not here, but I see that she is tweeting about what is going on. She has taken a job in the Europa to keep herself fed while she tries to get experience in film production and things up here.
It is not just enough for us to look after the people who do not have anything. We need to get the people who have the initiative to get themselves into a job out of those jobs and into something that uses their skills. That opens vacancies for other people to come back in. I am not sure that we have yet focused on that activity. It is a matter that, maybe, we will deal with at a different time.
Ms McAteer: There is a lot of promotion of NEET schemes, which is very worthwhile, but, as Christine said, there is not enough promotion of schemes for people like me, who feel that there is nothing there for them. I had a degree, and I was working. I was signing on, but I was not getting any money because I was working and I had to cut down my hours.
As the Minister said, it is about getting people through the door, but, unfortunately, if it is not the right door, it will not work. That is the end of the story. You need to get the right schemes for the right people, and you need the right mentors. When you are on the GAP scheme, you do a qualification, so there is a good chance for everyone to get together to talk about their GAP placement. So many people have said that people are going in and just being sat in a corner. Employers are taking them on because it is free labour for them, but people are having to go to their manager every day to ask for something to do. They want to be there, and they want to be working. The mentoring part of that really needs to be addressed as well.
Ms Fitzsimons: We have a displacement issue. When we talk about youth employment, it is clear that those who have experience are displacing those who are inexperienced. In the same way, in a lot of roles, underemployment is a critical issue and needs to be addressed. Perhaps it could be looked at in the review.
There are a lot of underemployed graduates in roles who are, effectively, displacing non-graduate young people, who then become part of the NEET community. It may be possible to address the NEET situation in another way by creating more vacancies at that level.
Mr Lyttle: I ask you to thank our panel for giving up their time to be with us this morning by giving them a round of applause.
We are all aware of the scale of the challenge in addressing youth employment opportunities in Northern Ireland. I sense a huge degree of passion, commitment and expertise in setting about that task. We have had some interesting points raised this morning about the need for our education system and our society in general to have a cultural shift towards the opportunities that are out there. We need proper labour planning to ensure that we inform our young people of the skills required, the opportunities available and the courses and training that are relevant to those skills. I am also interested in the importance of mentorship and the expertise and value added that seems to come from connecting young people with businesses and government so that we plan a way forward properly and together. I am glad that this forum has been able to make a small contribution to that this morning.
If people are willing to give their feedback on this morning’s event, there is a questionnaire for them to do so. There is also a list of forthcoming events. I direct you in particular to the Young Directors networking event, given what we have been speaking about this morning. We also have a Women in Business event that we are hoping to encourage people to come to and a Fairtrade breakfast.
I hope you have enjoyed your morning with us and found this valuable. I am very grateful for your attendance and for the contribution of our panel. Thank you.